When I was growing up in an otherwise uneventful and impoverished neighborhood in Guadalajara, there was an event that never failed to excite us—the return of the barrio’s prodigal sons. They were always men; their young brown bodies radiating the aura of success. They came home briefly, showing off the plunder from their stints as dishwashers and gardeners and factory workers and heaven knows what else, in a place where apparently everyone did well.
Not that any of us actually knew what kinds of jobs they did. (Nor did we care.) In a society deeply obsessed with appearance, what mattered was their glowing presence, their fabulous electronic gadgets, their impossibly white sneakers. Material possessions. For us these men were the very embodiment of success.
In a place where stagnation was the norm, it was inevitable that my childhood imagination would pin its hopes and aspirations on the mythological place these men were returning from. Like all other children from my social background, I soon came to conceive of the eventual journey northward as a fact of life.
More than three decades later, I realize that no seduction has ever been so sad. Lotus-eaters and sirens might have kept Odysseus from his son, his wife and his Ithaca, but while Greek vessels were either tossed or lulled by the whims of the gods, our feet were moved by compulsion and the incessant thrum of history. Basic dumb necessities, like food on the table and a new pair of shoes. And fear, the fear of simply existing in time, of always occupying the same extension of space, of the lusterless life that those coming back from the United States nullified instantly. Now I realize that they too were trapped in the cycle of our bloody cosmogony—sacrificing their youth to please the gods and keep the sun rising, or the earth spinning, or whatever.
The peculiarity of our story is better illustrated by dramatic example. The scene is a collage of urban parks with sporadic avocado and lime trees, sunny little towns, farms, corn fields and tomato bushes, all deserted by a whole generation of young and able hands answering the call of a shining city on a hill. The youth abandon the warmth of their native cities and cool pleasant valleys so they can mash avocados, chop tomatoes, squeeze limes and serve a respectable bowl of corn chips to their rightful bosses, who have chosen to settle in a land of unfavorable weather.
Perhaps this story would be less ironic had the diligent young men simply returned home. Their real conundrum began once they willingly stuck around, only to get on their knees and scrub toilets, mow lawns and dust the fancy furniture in mansions in tony neighborhoods, where soon they were belittled by the very people whose economy and comfortable lifestyle had tempted them in the first place. In spite of the backlash and resentment, the young men had decided to stay—why? They had discovered, as my returning neighbors did, the uniqueness of the place that reluctantly hosted them—its inherent capacity to foster growth.
It is no mystery that growth is the main creed of contemporary societies in the global economy. The belief in growth, like all convictions, is not without its ironies. Some of the founding pillars of capitalism—philosophy, war, trade—have exploited the rhetoric of this faith to such a degree that it has become necessary to condense it to a simple acronym, GDP, like some massive celestial body that has suddenly collapsed in on itself.
It isn’t merely the allure of boundless economic growth that makes the United States exceptional—Mexico, Brazil and India also promised untold treasures for their European colonizers. It’s also the fact that the idea of growth has always been an essential part of the country’s psychology. The Puritans were not just interested in becoming wealthier—they wanted to cultivate their faith, to lay down roots in a place where their spirit could breathe and stretch and yawn. The fabled founding fathers inherited this optimism—a sense of possibility so immense and sublime that one can’t but smile when reading their covenant with humanity, even while taking its self-evident truths with a grain of salt. More resonant with contemporary belief, even if garbed in metaphysical jargon, is their catchphrase, the pursuit of happiness, which sets us all, like donkeys, chasing after a carrot.
American poets preached growth alongside politicians. When Ralph Waldo Emerson dug up and opened his late wife’s coffin, he was not impressed by nature’s ebbing; his optimism could not be reconciled with the reality of decay. Everywhere else he looked, he saw growth—a single acorn contained all future forests, a drop of water all oceans. Textbooks remember him as the Sage of Concord, but one may also see him as a romantic prophet of American expansionism. To the aspiring scholar he recommended, in empowering and gusty metaphors, relying solely on his American imagination. “Our day of dependence,” he wrote, “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions arise that must be sung, that will sing themselves.” Better than any other author of his time, Emerson articulated America’s dreams of growth and its mission of Manifest Destiny, which were already present in both the spirit of American politics and in the inexorable pace of the so-called pioneers pushing westward.
The Mexican War, though denounced by poets like Emerson and Thoreau, was one expression of America’s expansionist ideal, its hunger for growth. The promise of land and prosperity had fueled the efforts of Stephen Austin as he recruited three hundred American families to settle current-day Texas in what was then the far northern tip of Mexican territory. While the Mexicans sat and watched, the Americans settled, opened shops and schools, and soon declared independence in a place that only years earlier had welcomed them as guests. With Texas under the control of its English-speaking settlers, it was not hard to imagine that the territories leading to the ocean (New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California and parts of Wyoming, according to some) would meet the same fate.
As they pushed West, Anglo settlers began courting socially prominent Mexican women in places like New Mexico in order to improve their status and claim legal rights to the new territory. Their relentless advance would force landowners in places like California to sign agreements in a language they didn’t understand, surrendering the rights to their properties lest they face the steel and powder of the newcomers. Following the Mexican-American War, a treaty was signed and new boundaries were drawn, severing whole communities and abandoning them in a legal vacuum that inspired the celebrated Chicano refrain: “We didn’t cross the border—the border crossed us.”
Throughout the Eighties, America had a gravitational power that pulled my neighbors north for most of the year and released its grip for brief periods of time: then they would materialize in sunny Guadalajara, a cheerful flock of migratory birds landing back in their broken nests.
I too drank from the cup of promise, of economic growth. One sunny afternoon in 1993, I underwent my rite of passage: a 36-hour bus ride to Tijuana delivered me at the gates of manhood and financial solvency. But now, more than twenty years later, the phenomenon of circular migration—which had allowed my neighbors annual visits to their families—is to be found mainly in history books. The lax border regulations that permitted them to come and go freely (though informally), according to the demand for labor, no longer exist. What exist instead are about 11 million undocumented individuals like me, trapped behind an increasingly militarized border.
Just like my neighbors, I sneaked into the United States thinking that escape from social stagnation could be found in economic advancement alone. If anyone then had told me that words also had the power to emancipate, I would have said, “¡No mames!” because at that time words did not matter to me. Or they mattered, but only insofar as they could forestall distractions from my more concrete goals, like adding a second story to my mother’s house. (Has anyone built a second floor with words alone?)
Even so, as a practical measure I decided to learn English. While attending an ESL course, I found out that I could also take GED classes to earn a high-school diploma, something that, due to my economic situation, I could never have dreamed of doing in my home country. But I still had no illusions of ever pursuing higher education. Only after a summer clearing tables with some American college kids, who were far from becoming geniuses, did I decide to approach the local community college and apply for entrance. Without realizing it, by taking this short trip up 111th Street, I began to follow the mythological route of American success—like the Pilgrims and the pioneers, I headed west, where the sun dies and dreams are reborn. It is thanks to an American community college that I realized that words can and do emancipate. Not as some epiphany that suddenly delivers one from poverty and obscurity, but as a slow and unexpected process, first nourishing, then questioning.
Today, I find it ironic that two men with the same name have instructed me on opposite American virtues: in my imagination Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ralph Waldo Ellison stand as the epitomes of the optimism and skepticism inherent to the dilemma I currently inhabit. They play the parts of mischievous demiurges tossing me back and forth in some perverse Hegelian game. Since very early in my life as a reader, Emerson displaced the idea of concrete growth with something intangible but uplifting; his words spoke to me with the assurance of self-reliance and self-determination. Many years later, Ellison showed me the flip side—the realm of invisibility, a place of want and frustration, that was nonetheless rich with lyricism and questions. It was a counter-narrative filled with riddles, such as: Is it possible to not exist and to be a problem at the same time?
Invisibility is so whimsical, so arbitrary and so cruel. America is particularly apt at enforcing it. My cousin Andrés, for instance, became invisible in the eyes of America when he crossed the border a few years before me. Since then, he has lived with the knowledge that only through an extraordinary event would he become flesh and blood again.
One day, about five years ago, he reached me on the phone. His mother had just died in Guadalajara. Torn up by the news, he was weighing his chances of attending her funeral and coming back to Chicago safely to grieve with his wife and children. Powerless, I said nothing. What advice could I offer after I had just been reading reports of kidnappings, military drones, infrared cameras and armed vigilantes looming along the border? What hope could I offer when others attempting to make a similar journey for similar reasons have turned to dust somewhere in the desert?
When I am invited to share my experience as an undocumented man with different communities, I often find myself puzzled by the misconceptions I encounter. An older gentleman stands up and demands one goddamn good reason not to call the police on me at that very moment. But then we would not be able to have a discussion, I answer.
I am aware of the conversation’s significance. That brief exchange alone is already of great value—just by engaging in it, we are both carrying on in the tradition of the town-hall meeting, which Tocqueville observed to be one of the pillars of the American democratic experience. It is clear that we come with different agendas—the man is determined to uphold the rule of law; I am forced to defend my humanity. In the end, our conversation veers toward the subject of the economy. He insists that people like me drive down wages for American workers; I tell him we make it possible for Americans to live comfortably and affordably. As a retiree, I add, he should be an ally of the undocumented, the Social Security Administration having retained $100 billion in taxes from our paychecks during the last decade alone. He remains skeptical—his version of America does not allow for an outlaw funding his retirement.
I, too, am skeptical.
During the 2016 election campaign we heard it all when it came to the problem of the undocumented—from building a massive wall along the Southern border to some swift trick that would bring us out into the open, like rabbits popping out of a magician’s hat. But as I write this, the situation remains what it has been for over two decades. In a country that allegedly believes in equality, justice and prosperity, some 11 million of its residents—nearly the entire population of Illinois—are stranded in a perpetual limbo.
Economists sometimes use the term “negative growth,” to describe a country’s contracting economy. When this happens in the U.S., it is not uncommon to blame the problem on the undocumented. Cast as the negative growth of the nation, we have come to be regarded as a disease, an unwelcome presence that must be removed immediately, like a cancer. This signals another kind of negative growth: a contraction of America’s promise to welcome the tired, huddled masses.
When I was a boy in Guadalajara, I dreamed of one day returning to my native city, like Toño and Juan and Alberto, glowing with the aura of success. I imagined it, knowing already, even at that early age, that migrating north meant I was most likely destined to lead a clandestine life. But that hypothetical return would mend all broken ties with my family, my community, my language and myself. Then neither the harsh physical labor nor the profound humiliation I was certain to experience would matter, for I could always look forward to the miracle of cyclical, temporary healing.
My loss, however, is not mine alone—those who voted to tear me apart from my wife and daughter and from Chicago, which is my home, have also lost. The loss I experience as helplessness they feel as a slow, gnawing anger. In a perfectly mathematical world, these two negatives would cancel each other out. But, as the past election showed (as if we had ever doubted it before), this is not a world ruled by reason. So here we find ourselves: growing negatively together.
Art credit: Carlos Javier Ortiz